Bryan Caplan  

The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels: Recap

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Everything I've written about The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels, my favorite book this year:

1. The thesis.

2. We owe civilization to fossil fuels.

3. We can live with warming.

4. Refining the case.

The book's a great Christmas present, all the way down to the festive cover.


COMMENTS (7 to date)
ted writes:

Prof. Caplan - the no. 4 link in the text is wrong, it points to no. 3. Please feel free to delete this message. Merry Christmas!

[Thanks, Ted. Bryan's out of town. I think I've fixed it.--Econlib Ed.]

AL writes:

[Comment removed pending confirmation of email address. Email the to request restoring this comment. A valid email address is required to post comments on EconLog and EconTalk.--Econlib Ed.]

Daublin writes:

Bravo. It's nice to read someone looking at the bright side of these developments. It's very bright indeed: cheap energy is at the heart of a vast improvement in human wellfare.

Christopher Chang writes:

Welp, I patiently waited for Caplan to say at least *something* about the biggest moral issue: fossil fuels are effectively nonrenewable (no, waiting a hundred million years for more of them to make their way into the ground is not a practical course of action), and humanity will almost certainly have to wean itself off of them within a few centuries.

Must be nice in the alternate universe Epstein lives in, where fossil fuels are unlimited and "global warming" was the worst side effect of using them as much as possible and deprioritizing development of other energy sources. This is like advocating slavery because slaves were not as likely to starve as some critics claim; the technical point may be correct but it's almost completely irrelevant to the horrifying big picture.

(If someone else has read the book and found that Epstein actually does address the issue, then the error would be Caplan's; but I have a hard time imagining any good arguments Epstein could make.)

Pajser writes:

Libertarians have all the reasons to be against pollution as other people do, plus one additional reason - pollution is an aggression against private property rights. They should be on the forefront of the anti-pollution campaigns. Caplan noted that in his previous post.

    "If talk about individual rights means anything, shouldn't there be noteworthy cases where you favor stricter pollution controls than utilitarians?"

Very good sentence. It is inconsistent, even puzzling that libertarians are frequently on opposite side and advocate greater pollution than others. Book with title "moral case" written from the libertarian point of view should clearly address that.

Chad writes:

Christopher, I've read the book and it definitely addresses

"...the biggest moral issue: fossil fuels are effectively nonrenewable.."

You asked:

If someone else has read the book and found that Epstein actually does address the issue...I have a hard time imagining any good arguments Epstein could make.

The book provides charts and data of how much fossil fuel resources (total reserves) have been *increasing* as we use more. The resources have been increasing at a much faster rate then we are using them, and this has pretty much always been true. Also given is the reasoning that "resources" are not the same thing as raw materials. Resources are raw materials we can make use of, and our ability to create resources increases as our technology and energy usage increases. The supply of hydrocarbons we can make use of in the universe is limited only by our ability to find them in new forms, in new places, and/or create them. As we create resources, our ability to create even more resources is ever-growing. Further, if it makes sense to "wean off of" a resource because of scarcity, this transaction can happen just fine through the market incentives for substitutions as prices climb. Nobody falls off a cliff. Artificially imposing restrictions today by reasoning speculative and unlikely shortages in 200 years, when all kinds of technology will be different, has no advantages and all kinds of disadvantages.

If you're interested in this topic I definitely recommend reading both this book, and Julian Simon's The Ultimate Resource, which goes into great detail in both data and reasoning--I think you'll find that there's not so much to worry about. But check them out for yourself and see what you think.

Christopher Chang writes:


I agree that there is no need to impose arbitrary restrictions now, any more than there would be a need to systematically restrict a 6-month-old baby's consumption of mother's milk. I previously remarked that we should have at least a century to transition away from fossil fuels under status quo policies.

However, there's no escaping the laws of physics. The total consumption of any *specific* mined resource follows a roughly logistic, not exponential, curve. The two curves are hard to distinguish from each other until the inflection point is reached. But once you're on the wrong end of that logistic, you better jump to the right end of another logistic curve if you want the good times to continue to roll. The last several centuries of economic growth has been a story of repeated jumping from one curve to another, as explorers and scientists repeatedly opened up new vistas before the old ones saturated or gave out.

Petroleum has arguably been the biggest logistic of them all so far, and it looks like it'll last longer than you or I will live. But unless our scientific understanding of how fossil fuels were created is utterly wrong, we still need to prepare to jump to other curves even while we enjoy the blessings of the current one.

Solar and nuclear are the obvious candidates; even they are bound to logistic curves with an upper limit, but that upper limit is a Dyson sphere, trillions of times beyond what we're channeling today. They promise a glorious future for humanity (or post-humanity), as long as enough of us get our act together and solve the incredibly challenging problems required to tame them.

But a "drill, baby, drill" policy of riding the fossil fuel logistic to the end as quickly as possible, while defunding solar and nuclear R&D until we're already past the fossil fuel inflection point, is a recipe for disaster. Again, solar and nuclear are HARD. I don't think they are so hard that we can't crack them with another century of relatively peaceful progress, but if we end up with policymakers who are as blind to the distinction between a logistic and an exponential as Epstein appears to be, we may not have that peaceful century. At best, some wartime laboratory cracks the problem, and a few privileged people manage to jump to the next curve, while the rest of civilization collapses.

There are known market failure modes concerning public goods. There are very, very few public goods more important to humanity's future than solar and nuclear R&D. By debunking faulty rationales for government support of solar, I think Epstein has performed a public service; I believe his criticisms of global warming alarmists are valid, and that most of us benefit from putting those crass opportunists and misguided disciples in their place. But if Epstein does not balance that with a discussion of the grave long-term risks of underinvesting in solar and nuclear, I believe he is performing a far greater disservice.

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